what I know about my grandfather

I should begin this all by saying Opa is doing pretty well, all things considered.

More than a week ago, Opa’s housekeeper Sylvia come by for her regular appointed time and found him in a pool of blood on the floor.

He was rushed to the hospital and put into the Intensive Care Unit. I guess his liver decided it was done and was sending the blood back out somehow. Just when they got that under control so he could leave te ICU, he quit breathing. Back into the ICU with a new breathing tube. Oh yeah then he got a blood infection of some kind.

My Opa is 80 and has had a lifelong love of liquor and cigarettes. He smoked 4 packs a day and drank more than the equivalent volume of liquor. I honestly can’t believe he’s made it this long.

Now, I don’t know him very well. Things I remember about him from when I was little:

Mom cried when she talked to him on the phone and felt compelled to explain her relationship to ‘Dad’ to me in incomprehensible sentences

Once, while driving in a car with mom and Opa, he explained that he didn’t want to be anyone’s grandfather, it didn’t feel right to him. So, that’s why he would rather be called Opa…Opa means old man, and he didn’t mind beign someone’s old man. We had never called Opa anything but Opa, so this was another incomprehensible explanation

Once, at his apartment in Vallejo (or was it livermore?) the family was fed on waffles made by mom and lemon sauce that Opa made…”his specialty”

As far as memories of Opa when I was a kid, that is kind of it. Of course I remember how Mom was always upset about him and how he unsettled her.

His drinking caused her the most consternation. She always wanted him to stop drinking. She tried to make a deal with him:
“I will come see you, but you have to promise me that you won’t drink that day.”
And she would go see him, and he would have been drinking. So she would turn around and leave.

Fortunately, this didn’t happen often. We lived to far away. There were four years of my childhood that we lived in the same state, but even then, we were about an 8 hour drive away. So, naturally, we didn’t see him much.

Mom was the oldest. My Grandma and Opa had married, and their little daughter remained their only daughter for a long time…I forget.. I think 10 years before my aunt Donnie appeared. And then next my uncle Marty.

But those were the days of Avalon. Swords had been melted into refrigerators and lawn mowers. The ones who fought in the war deserved their ranch-style with all the modern amenities. They had fought for it, hadn’t they?

And then after all, it turns out they deserved to get divorced. The way mom tells it, everyone up and down the street broke up. And when Mom was 16, her dad, my Opa, flew the coop.

Everything was shiny and new then, they had just invented divorce. People hadn’t worked out the kinks yet. I don’t think “visitation rights” were part of the general vocabulary.

My grandmother was a pretty lady and enough of a charmer to find a new husband since the old one was a dud. And Aunt Donnie and Uncle Marty called Granpa Jess ‘Dad’.

But my mother didn’t. She was already in college when her little brother and sister were learned to call this new man “dad”. Grandma and Grandpa Jess were the ones who send birthday cards and Christmas present. I called them Grandma and Grandpa. Mom called them Mom and Jess.

She is really the only one who remembers Opa as “dad”. She is the only one with any reserve of good memories, of good times together with this man.

Hey, it was the 60’s man! Freedom was in the air! Free love on the lawns of Berkeley or Frank Sinatra in Vegas with the liquor and loose women. Take your pick!

He was an aerospace engineer of somekind. He was making good money and saving the world from communists and space aliens. He was riding high.

But I don’t know. I don’t know what Opa was like before he become too dessicated to walk on his own. I don’t have clear memories of him from even the 80s. Anytime I saw him, I was too distracted by the force field of fear and throbbing of wounds that sprang up around my mother.

Opa was like some elemental, some force of nature. Fascinating to watch in it’s raw state, but like a tornado or hurricane, you couldn’t stay out in it too long or someone one would get hurt.

When I became an adult, I had the desire to reaquaint myself with the extended family I’d never known. My own parents were certianly out of reach, self-exiled to Russia.

I was (and am) intensely curious and somewhat wary about all these cousins and relatives who look and sound eerily like myself. The older ones were the ones who had the missing puzzle pieces, too. They were the ones who might help untwist the thread. So many incomprehensible choices had been made by my parents. The people who knew my parents before I did would have some insight. Or at least maybe they would confirm my assesment that my parents were crazy.

But I needed to know these people.

Let me tell you something about my immediate family. We are very literal. Do not ask if something is possible. If something is possible, it is possible. At high personal cost, death or dismembership, that wasn’t the question. So we will tramp ahead and do the possible thing, when we believe it must or should be done.

When I first came back from Russia, it was possible, though barely, for me to go to California to see my extended family. I saw almost everyone, but I didn’t see Opa.

He had been more or less cast to the wind.

I eventually moved here to California and felt bad about ignoring Opa. He landed in the hospital then, so I went to visit him. He hadn’t seen me since I was 9.

So. Nice to meet you Opa. Yes, this is me, all grown up. And Opa stepped out with inappropriate anatomical comments. SIGH. And there were the recent studies of anything in particular that he had read that he had to tell me, and there was his disinterest and frustration with any topic I might bring up to talk about. Of course, if a man were talking it was different.

And always, the alcohol.

I tried a few times, but after spending one particularly drunken afternoon during which he suggested that he might get a free drink if he pimped me out to the bartender, I just stopped visiting.

I thought, I should not visit him alone. What point would it serve? I’m not even sure if he’s clear on who I am; he’s always confusing me for my mother.

Except last week he was found in a puddle of his own blood. And he’s 80, and maybe this was it. It has been 6 years since I last visited him.

I talked with mom for a while about it. “What do the doctors say? Is he really in danger?”

I thought if there was a funeral, I should go. And I thought, “It would be nice to see everyone.” Which is not such a nice thought. Because, he wasn’t dead yet. And really, if he was still around I should make the effort to go see him.

It would make the funeral easier to enjoy.

So, I drove to see him. And he was doing much better by Tuesday, and even more by Wednesday. We talked for a bit. He was weak and tied to tubes. The alcohol wasn’t there, but he was still inappropriate.

And yet….I actually could see through what was left of him to catch glimpses of who he might have been.

It occurred to me that we have a similar sense of humor. When I told him that my cousin Dallass was having a girl and naming her Adelaide, he started singing a song about Adelaide.

I had thought that too, “Isn’t that a song?” He knew the song and was singing it, which is exactly what I would have done if I’d remembered the song.

He also made silly puns and goofy comments whenever he could.
“Why do little ducks walk softly? Because they can’t walk hardly”

and his favorite (He told it twice)
“Why don’t worms have balls? Becuase they don’t like to dance!”

He also had quirky little things to say in response to people; he liked to twist around the meaning of words. When I told him that I thought mom was crazy for working in Newark and living in Sacramento, he thought for a while and said,
Your mother’s center of gravity is closer to the edge than other peoples’

And then quoted “The road less travelled”
He tried to tell me about a study regarding the mining of helium from Texas (inspired by the balloon I brought him).

It wasn’t much, but I began to see a little bit of the person he had been. I thought, if he had been someone I met, someone my age, I might have really had a good time with him. I always like the smart boys, and have a lot of male friends that I love to verbally spar with. Yes, I could see that he might have been prickly in just that kind of way.

There were a few times when I fired back at one of his retorts. He said, “You catch on. Things don’t get past you.”

That made me feel good. It was then that I realized that feeling, the familiar teasy back-and-forth that I have with some of my friends. It’s the first time I really felt like I got a sense of this man’s personality.

I wish he didn’t make it so hard. I wish that we’d had a chance to know each other. Most of the time during my visit, he was uncertain of exactly which granddaughter I was even though he was glad to have the company.

But I’m glad I took the chance to go see him.

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